Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China

This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.

60 Minutes: When the media misinforms

You would think, that with a general scientific consensus on the anthropogenic nature of climate change, politicians, journalists, business leaders and the like would generally be positive and encouraging of any steps to mitigate out impact on GHG emissions. You would think that, because you would hope that we’d all be aiming for a better future for ourselves and our children and our children’s children. You would think that people would want to support efforts to better ourselves, rather than sitting back and doing nothing.

You would think that, but you would be wrong.

A screenshot from last night’s program.

I was relieved to read this piece by Will Oremus in Slate and this piece by Joe Romm and Emily Atkin on ThinkProgress today. Unfortunately, the readership of Slate and ThinkProgress combined versus the viewership of 60 Minutes is not really comparable and there are a going to be a lot of frustratingly misinformed people in the US today.

Misinforming the public, and cherry-picking the negatives as 60 Minutes did is concerning and curious. What I struggle to understand is why? Why would you consciously ignore the vast majority of Robert Rapier’s comments and only publicise those which damage the reputation of the cleantech industry? Why would you ignore the huge progress that cleantech has made in the last year, and the promise that it holds for the years ahead? Does CBS/ 60 Minutes have some vested interest in the traditional energy sector?

I can’t pretend that I understand the reasons, but I am angry that this happened. This is not reporting, this is not journalism, this is fantasy. And it is a fantasy that could damage the cleantech industry, by reducing investment in a supposedly failing, but actually booming industry. We need more money invested into cleantech research. We need it to help us reduce emissions and ensure the future of the planet, but the US also needs it if they want to continue to compete on the same playing field as China. China and the US’s industrial competition is not my battle, but I can’t help but feel that in ten years time, the US will suddenly realise that they have been left behind – and that misleading pieces like that aired last night were part of the reason.